Reducing Antibiotics in Livestock Farming: Short-Term Pain but Long-Term Gain

Recent findings link specific antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals to the heavy use of those antibiotics in livestock production in emerging markets. This puts increasing pressure on animal protein producers in these regions to reduce—or even ban—antibiotics, like their peers in Europe and the US before them. Different approaches to reducing antibiotics usage can temporarily change the relative competitive positions of animal protein producers.

photo of broiler chicken

Much ado about colistin

Bacteria resistant to colistin, a last-resort antibiotic in human medicine, are spreading across the globe—they have been found in hospitals in over 30 countries, including the US, Germany and Thailand. A recent article in the Lancet found colistin-resistant bacteria in 28 Chinese hospitals.1 Another study in Nature Microbiology found high rates of colistin-resistant bacteria in flies around Chinese poultry farms.2 This study shows that flies can spread resistance, and also identifies poultry farms as a source of colistin-resistance.

Going ‘antibiotic-light’

As a result of these findings, we expect tighter regulation regarding the use of antibiotic growth promoters in livestock farming in emerging markets. Experiences in Europe—where programmes to reduce the use of antibiotics have already been in place for over a decade—show us that a transition towards ‘antibiotic-light’ livestock farming can be made with a relatively small impact on a farm’s technical performance. However, a total standstill in the development of a farm’s technical performance can result in a weak competitive position vis-à-vis farming operations that continue their large-scale use of antibiotic growth promoters.

Fewer antibiotics used in Europe

The overall sales of veterinary antimicrobial agents in 24 European countries shrank by 2.4% between 2011 and 2014, according to a publication by the European Medicines Agency, although this differs substantially between European countries.3 Whereas sales in the Netherlands have decreased by 35%, to an average level of 68.4 mg/PCU in 2014, Spanish sellers report the highest sales of the EU: an average of 418.8 mg/PCU (2014).4 In Spain, antibiotics are likely still widely applied preventively, as the premix industry has a share of around 70% in the distribution of these veterinary antimicrobial agents. The Netherlands has a premix share of less than 5% in the distribution, indicating an almost entirely curative application.

All eyes on Spain

Although we didn’t focus on the relationship between the use of antibiotics and the technical performance in livestock farming per se, our research showed that in the period from 2011 to 2014 the Spanish pork industry improved its Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR) when compared to its Dutch peers (see Figure 1). This was one of the factors that helped the Spanish pork industry turn a cost price disadvantage into an advantage. It remains to be seen whether the relative improvement of the Spanish FCR is sustainable, as pressure is mounting on Spanish pig farmers to reduce the use of antibiotics.

Figure 1: The Spanish pork industry is closing the FCR gap with The Netherlands

Short-term pain but long-term gain

Just like their peers in Spain, livestock farmers in emerging markets will ultimately have to reduce the use of antibiotics. The experience of Europe shows that an early focus on improving farming practices and non-antibiotic growth promoters fosters a production infrastructure that supports sustainable technical performance. Antibiotics can only mask inferior farm management for a while, and as such, they support a relatively strong technical performance only temporarily.

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